The Big 12 went one up and one down in Thursday men’s NCAA Tournament action as Kansas State continued its late-season run to advance to the third round, while Missouri’s road woes became a problem once again. But this time it ended the Tigers’ season.
In a game in which senior do-everything guard Jacob Pullen was not at full health and which many experts thought might be a real challenge for the Wildcats, Kansas State took control from the very beginning and never let up in thwarting 12-seed Utah State’s second-round upset bid, 73-68, in a Southeast Region contest played at the University of Arizona’s McKale Center in Tucson.
Pullen, who had been suffering for a couple of days from what was reported to be flu-like symptoms, did what he has done all year long, scoring 22 points and leading his team to victory, despite his ill health. “He’s answered the bell all season,” said coach Frank Martin of his star point guard. “He’s a real warrior.”
In addition to Pullen, the Wildcats (23-10) received offensive support from senior forward Curtis Kelly, who knocked down 15 points, five above his season average, and guards Shane Southwell and Rodney McGruder tallied 10 a piece.
The Kansas State defensive pressure stifled Utah State early, forcing the Aggies into floor mistakes they don’t normally make and early foul trouble for their top big man, Tai Wesley, who was forced to the bench for nearly nine minutes in the opening half.
The Wildcats got a bit sloppy on both ends of the court in the second half, while Utah State’s big guns, Wesley and Brockeith Pane, started hitting just about everything they threw up. The Aggies (30-4), making their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and eighth appearance in the past 12 years, scored 14 points in the final minute of the game, forcing K-State to win the game from the foul line, where as a team the Wildcats were only 64 percent for the season.
But this was not the regular season, it was March Madness, and K-State closed out the game hitting 11 of 14 from the line in the final 1:08 and 24 of 28 for the game.
After the game, a calm and focused Pullen had this to say: “It was just understanding that our last game of the season could come if we don’t shoot the ball from the free-throw line.” The Wildcat’s senior leader showed the way, hitting six of eight from the charity stripe in the closing minute.
Missouri’s night was not nearly as uplifting. After jumping out to an early lead and pressuring sixth-seeded Cincinnati into an assortment of miscues in the opening moments of the game. The Tigers’ substitutes off the bench weren’t able to hold off the Bearcats, who began taking it to the rim and scoring at will on the inside against undersized Mizzou.
The Bearcats (26-8), who finished sixth in the country’s best conference, the Big East, built an 11 point lead at the half, 39-28. The 11th-seeded Tigers fought back into the game in the second stanza, cutting Cincinnati’s lead to six points with 10 minutes still remaining in the game. But the Bearcats proceeded to go on a 16-7 run, lengthening their lead to 70-55 and putting the game out of reach for Mike Anderson’s Tigers, the fifth and final Big 12 team to make this year’s NCAA Tournament cut.
Junior Ricardo Ratliffe led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points. Marcus Denmon, the Tigers’ scoring leader all season, finished with 10, well under his per-game average. For the game, Cincinnati shot 58 percent while holding Missouri to 38 percent from the field.
The Bearcats move on to face fellow Big East foe Connecticut (27-9), the No. 3 seed in the West Region, in the third round Saturday in Washington, D.C. UConn easily disposed of Bucknell in its second-round game.
Kansas State will also be playing in Saturday’s slate of third-round NCAA tourney games. The Wildcats will next go up against the No. 4 seed in the Southeast, Wisconsin (24-8), 72-58 winners over 13-seed Belmont on Thursday.
No. 1-seed Kansas, fourth-seeded Texas and seventh-seed Texas A&M out of the Big 12 are all in action today. Today’s tourney pairings and the Big 12 Examiner’s picks follow:
Thursday’s Examiner picks: 2-0
Friday, March 18
Kansas over Boston University (by 14)
Florida State over Texas A&M (by 3)
Texas over Oakland (by 9)
For more information:
Big 12 Conference official website
Additional Big 12 sports coverage & commentary
AP and ESPN/USA Today college basketball polls
hornface.com college basketball rankings